How to Identify Modulation in Music a Complete Guide


Modulation is known as the “love it or hate it” songwriting technique. Do it well, and it will elevate your song but implement it wrong, and it can sound very, very corny.

 We identify modulation in music by the sonic changes of the song’s character, which occur through the modulation process. Modulation in music means changing tonality, which is the change from one key to another key. Also, modulation is very hard to mask even when it’s masterfully disguised. 

But how does modulation occur? What are the different types of modulation, and what are some good examples? These questions and a lot more will be answered below.

Let’s begin with the basics…

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What Is Modulation

Modulation in music is the process of changing from one key to another. It occurs when a piece of music moves away from the tonic and goes to another key, which usually has some kind of relation to our home Key.

Conjunction And Modulation

 A conjunction is a technique we use the move smoothly from one thought to another without starting a new sentence. Modulation in music is very similar to the conjunction technique. Also, modulation in music is commonly used to keep the listener’s attention and add variety to musical pieces. 

Let’s understand a few of the basic terms: 

  • Roman numerals are used to represent the chords in a key. Example: I, VI, v, ii.

Also, certain symbols can be used to represent different types of chords such as:

Major chords: I, II, III, etc.

Minor chords: i, ii, iii, etc.

What you should remember:

  • Capital letters are used for Major chords. Example: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII.
  • Small letters are used for minor chords. Example: i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii.

Notes and Chords Have Unique Names

Each note of a scale has a unique name and function. We call this a scale degree. Also, each scale degree is represented with a specific chord. Here is an example: 

The first note of a scale is called the tonic, the chord of the first scale degree is represented with the numerical symbol “I”. The “I” stands for the number “1”.

Here are the names of the scale degree notes

  1. The first note is called the tonic 
  2. The second note is called the supertonic
  3. The third note is called the mediant 
  4. The fourth note is called the subdominant 
  5. The fifth note is called the dominant 
  6. The sixth note is called the submediant 
  7. The seventh note is called the leading tone (which is a half step below the tonic) 
  8. The eighth note is also called the tonic (octave)

 Here the 8 basic chords and their Romanian numerical number:

  1. The first chord I or i
  2. The second chord II or ii
  3. The third chord III or iii
  4. The fourth chord IV or iv
  5. The fifth chord V or v
  6. The sixth chord VI or vi
  7. The seventh chord VII or vii
  8. The eighth chord VIII or viii

What you should remember:

  • We call the notes of a scale “scale degrees”. 
  • Each scale degree has a specific set of chords attached to it. We represent these chords with Romanina numerical numbers.

Common modulation techniques

1) Modulating to a Parallel Key

Parallel modulation is all about changing the overall mood of the song.

 Parallel modulation happens when we change from a major to a minor key (or from a minor to major key) on the same tonic route.

 In other words, the tonic (root) remains the same. This is because we change the quality of the chords built on that root. 

Think about is as if we are not modulating but as we are just changing color! If you are in Amaj or Amin, your tonal center is still the note A.

For example, let’s say a song began in the key of A major, a parallel key change would change the tonic from A major -> to A minor . You see the note A remains the same, we only changed the major to minor.

Another example will be If we have a song in the key of C minor. A parallel key change would change the tonic from C minor -> to C major.

Again the note C remains the same. We only changed the minor to major.

Parallel key modulation Way 1

A neat trick to smoothen out the process of modulating to a parallel key is just before the change happens to use a chord that is common both in the Major and Minor scales of the same key. 

A popular example would be the V (fifth) chord of the scale

  • The A major scale chords:
  • The A minor scale chords:

Both in the scales of A major and A minor, the V chord is the E MAJOR.

I ding it very interesting how parallel modulation dictates the mood of our song, to get an idea to listen to the following example. EXAMPLE AUDIO

Now let’s imagine you want to revert back to the A major, how would we do that? 

The best way to revert back to the original key after a parallel key modulation is to use chords that will lead you again towards the V chord since it’s our bridge between major and minor. 

Here is an example of how a change like that could sound: EXAMPLE AUDIO

Parallel key modulation Way 2

Use borrowed chords. The idea behind this technique is very easy, simply you just have to “borrow” a couple of chords from the key you want to change to. 

We would want to borrow chords from the A minor scale in order to make the transition appear smoothly. 

PRO TIP: Try the following, write your verse and chorus in a major key, and modulate the chorus to its parallel minor. This will give a great contrast to your song.

2) Modulating to a Relative Key

Modulating to a relative key means that we move from major to a minor key or from minor to major key. The catch is that both keys must have the same key signatures. An example would be the A major key and the F# minor key, both have three sharps (#).

An easy way to know if we can modulate to a relative key is using the famous circle of fifths, as you can see all 12 major keys, and all 12 minor keys are listed in the picture below. Simply follow the circle of fifths to modulate to the relative key.

Closely related keys

Closely related keys and distantly related keys: In music, closely related keys are keys that share a lot of common tones with the original key. And distantly related keys are keys that share less common tones. Eventually, common tones create common chords, and two scales share (or don’t share) these chords. 

What you should remember: We define if two keys are closely related or not, by the number of flats and sharts they have in common.

Bellow, I have created a few examples of closely related keys. You’ll notice that they all have only one accidental difference:

  • C minor – 3 Flats
  • Closely related keys
  • Eb major – 3 Flats
  • F minor – 4 flats
  • Ab major – 4 flats
  • G minor – 2 flats
  • Bb major – 2 flats

Use the circle of fifths to identify the number of sharps and flats of a key.

Modulating to a Closely Related Key and common chord modulations

This technique is widely used for moving to closely related keys.

One of the smoothest ways to get from one key to another is to target a chord that is common in both keys (scales). An example of common chords between two scales would be the C major scale and the G major scale. These two scales share 4 common chords (C, Eminor, G, and the A minor chord). Later on, we will explore me thoroughly the common chord modulation technique.

I have created a chart with the closely related keys of all 7 major and minor keys.

The major keys

  • Given Major Key: C

Closely related keys for the C major key: 

-D minor, 

-E minor, 

-F major, 

-Gmajor, 

-A minor.

  • Given Major Key: D

Closely related keys for the D major key:

-E minor

-F# minor

-G major

-A major

-B minor

  • Given Major Key: E

Closely related keys for the E major key: 

-F# minor

-G# minor

-A major

-B major

-C# minor

  • Given Major Key: F

Closely related keys for the F major key:

-G minor

-A minor

-Bb major

-C major

-D minor

  • Given Major Key: G

Closely related keys for the G major key: 

-A minor

-B minor

-C major

-D major

-E minor

  • Given Major Key: A

 Closely related keys for the A major key:

-Bb minor

-C# minor

-D major

-E major

-F# minor

  • Given Major Key: B

Closely related keys for the B major key: 

-C# minor

-D# minor

-E major

-F# major

-G# minor

The minor keys

  • Given Minor Key: c

 Closely related keys for the c minor key:

 -Eb major

 -f minor

 -g minor

 -Ab major

 -Bb major

  • Given Minor Key: d

Closely related keys for the d minor key:

 F major

 g minor

 a minor

 Bb major

 C major

  • Given Minor Key: e

Closely related keys for thee minor key:

-G major

-a minor

-b minor

-C major

-D major

  • Given Minor Key: f

Closely related keys for the f minor key: 

-Ab major

-Bb minor

-c minor

-Db major

-Eb major

  • Given Minor Key: g

Closely related keys for the g minor key: 

-Bb major

-c minor

-d minor

-Eb major

-F major

  • Given Minor Key: a

Closely related keys for the minor key: 

-C major

-d minor

-e minor

-F major

-G major

  • Given Minor Key: b

Closely related keys for the b minor key: 

-D major

-e minor

-f# minor

-G major

-A major

Other types of modulations

Common Tone Modulation

 Common tone modulation occurs when a note in the last chord of our chord progression also exists in the first chord of the chord progression we want to modulate to. In this case, a change in chord progressions also means a change in key. 

A few examples include:

  1. Going from G Major to Eb major (a major 3rd away).
  2. Modulating from the key of C major to the key of A major using the E note as a link for our transition, (notes present the C major chord C, E, G, and notes present the A major chord A, C#, E).

We can also achieve common tone modulation through our lead line. For example, if our lead line ends on the note F we could transition in a chord that also has the F note. Some examples include transitioning from the F major key to D minor (D, A F) or Db major (Db, F, Ab) as you can see both chords share the F note.

 In order to achieve a smooth transition, you can follow these guidelines:

Avoid downward-moving modulations: 

  • These types of movements may have a significant impact on the overall energy of your song; especially if its a classic four-chord pop song, the energy levels may quickly go down.
  • Try keeping the common tone in the melody-line. Keeping the common tone in the melody line will help you achieve a smoother transition since we are accentuating the notes that form the basis of our modulation.
  • Use different keys for different sections: A great tip is to choose a different key for the chorus and a different key for the verse section. This technique is not that common in popular music since most pop songs use just a four-chord progression, but when it is used, it always blows my mind. This is because I find it unpredictable and, at the same time, very refreshing.
  •  Modulate sparingly: in some cases, modulation can come across as a bit corny. Before modulating its best to first understand the genre, you’re working in. Pay attention to how the modulation contributes to the overall feeling of the song, then try it out and notice if it sounds too cheesy or not.

Modulating by Step

 One of the most popular forms of modulation is the half step modulation. “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson and “I just called to say I love you” by Stevie Wonder are two famous examples that use the half step modulation technique. 

One of the reasons modulation often occurs towards the end of a song is because it can become somewhat tiresome if the chorus section is repeated more than twice.

A great way to use half step modulation is by using the dominant Chord (V) of the key you want to transition to just one bar before the transition occurs. Here is an example:

A) The following chord progression is in the key of Bb major and is the verse of our song example.

Song key: Bb

Chord progression: Bb, F, Cm, Eb (I V ii IV)

   

B) Now let’s say we want to transition to the chorus using the half step modulation technique. The best way to do that is by replacing the Eb chord with a F#7 chord. 

We choose the F#7 because the F# is the dominant Chord (V chord) of the B major key, to which we want to transition. Now our temporary altered progression will look like this:

Song key: Bb

Chord progression: Bb, F, Cm, F#7 (I V ii V)

      

C) Finally using the half step modulation technique, this is how our chord progression chorus will finally look like:

Song key: B

Chord progression: B, F#,C#,E (I V III V)

     

Of course, we don’t have to modulate only by a half step. We can modulate by a minor 3rd down or up, or even by a major 2nd.

Listen to the following examples

How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston (modulates a minor 3rd down)

Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frankie Valli (modulates a minor 3rd up)

I Want it That Way” by Backstreet Boys (modulates a major 2nd up)

Modulate by a whole step

A) Let’s use the same chord progression as we did before:

Song key: Bb

Chord progression: Bb, F, Cm, Eb ( I V ii IV )

        

B) This time we will assume we want to modulate to the C major scale (a whole step up). Thus our progression will be:

Song key: C

Chord progression: C, G, Dm, F, ( I V ii IV )

                                        

PRO TIP: This may be hard to explain without an audio example) I played the last Chord (Eb) of our old scale half through stopping the chords and letting the melody linger on its own, then while still in the scale of Bb I modulated first the melody line to C major, and then I inserted the C major scale chord progression (C, G, Dm, F)

By utilizing this technique, you guide your listeners towards the new progression using the melody line. This smoothens up the whole transition.

Chromatic Common Chord Modulation

Chromatic Modulation is used for moving to distant keys.

Same as common chord modulation, chromatic common chord modulation uses a common chord to turn from one key to another. The difference between the two techniques is that we don’t use a chord that is common between the two keys as a “bridge”; instead, chromatic modulation uses a borrowed chord as a pivot.

Here is an example:

Let’s use a fresh set of chords this time in the key of C major

Song key: C

Chord progression: C, Dm, G7, C (  I ii V7 I )

                                       

A) Now we will pick a borrowed chord in our key of C major. A great choice is opting for the timeless iv chord, which, in our case, will be the Fm chord.

B) Next, we want to find a major or minor key that has the Fm chord as a diatonic or borrowed chord.

These are our current options:

A)Here are a few examples of Major keys, that have the Fm chord in them:

  1. The Eb major key, which has the Fm as the ii chord.
  2. The Db major key, which has the Fm as the iii chord.
  3. The Ab major key, which has the Fm as the vi chord.

B) And if we choose a minor key, the Fm chord would be the

  1. I chord in Fm minor

I will use the first option of the Eb major key.

Before we continue, I must clarify that the Fm chord is an iv chord in the scale of C major and an ii chord in the scale of Eb major.

Also, to make our transition appear smoothly, we will insert the dominant Chord (V) of the Eb major scale, which in this case, will be the Bb7 Chord.

After that, we can simply create the progression for our Eb major scale. 

This is how the whole process look’s like:

A) he main chord progression in the key of C major

Song key: C

Chord progression: C, Dm, G7, C ( I ii V7 I )

                                     

B) And our borrowed pivot chords

  • Fm
  • Bb7

C) Here is our new chord progression in the key of Eb major

Song key: Eb

Chord progression: Eb, Fm, Bb7, Eb ( I ii V7 I )

            

How to make a key modulation sound less obvious

Abrupt modulations can have a negative impact on our song. Consequently, what happens before or after a key modulation can determine if the modulation will be more or less subtle.

Technique a: limit the note changes (in the melody) before the modulation takes place, in this way the change will be less noticeable

Technique b: Use (a) chord(s) from the new key right before the modulation happens. This will make the change less obvious since we used chords in the old key signature, which also are present in the key we want to modulate too.

The difference between modulation and key change

Another word we could use to describe the term modulation is “a prepared key change,” and the term key change can better be described as an “abrupt key change.”

Most commonly modulation does require a pivot (common) chord that must be found in both keys, or otherwise a common tone or a borrowed chord.

An abrupt key change is a technique we find mainly in Pop music. Specifically towards the end of a song when the chorus section is repeated.

Let’s now explore something that took me a while to understand. 

Not all key changes are modulations, but every modulation IS a key change, also not every key change requires a change of key signature. 

What is a key signature?

A key signature in musical notation is a set of sharps (♯), and flats (♭), symbols placed together on the staff.

What is transposition?

Changing the key of a piece of music is called transposing. Just remember the following: music that is written in a major key can be transposed to any other major key. This rule also applies to music written in minor keys, which can also be transposed to any other minor key.

Reasons you might want to transpose a song

  1. The most popular reason why you would want to transpose the key of the song would be to ensure that the song key fits your vocalist range.
  2. Also, instrumentalists may find that a piece may be easier to play when it’s in a different key; this is particularly true for musicians that have to perform a solo section.

Conclusion

It took me a while to create this modulation guide, but I enjoyed every bit of it! You can explore our latest articles, bellow.

See you around!

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